Five hundred years ago this autumn, Martin Luther may or may not have nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, as tradition has it. Wherever they were posted, the theses spread across Europe thanks to a revolutionary information technology: the printing press. As historian Carlos Eire recently argued, “No printing press, no Reformation.” But beyond tensions within the Church and a new information technology, there was plenty more happening in 16th-century Europe.
At the dawn of the early modern period, the foundations of medieval European society were shifting. The rise of humanism and a spirit of discovery preceded whatever may have happened on October 31, 1517 at that church in Wittenberg. Erasmus had already urged individuals to elevate themselves through learning and textual analysis. Europeans dreamed of a wider world after Columbus’s discovery of the New World in 1492 and Vasco da Gama’s circumnavigation of the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, which opened Asia. These developments took more than a century to change the mental maps of Europeans, and disentangling the impact of the Reformation, as if it were solely a theological exertion, is impossible.
Luther’s religious revolution touched off sparks across Western Christianity—among his opponents as much as his supporters. The fires of argument, fueled by paper, led to a literate mass readership, fed sectarian fragmentation and radicalization, and launched cycles of competition and innovation.
As our own post-Cold War world order crumbles amid another information revolution, those 95 theses look like a tweetstorm that started a hurricane, where the original message was rapidly repurposed in ways beyond Luther’s imagining. A lot was going on then (as now), which contemporaries imperfectly understood. Even limiting our focus to the connection between religion and technology, the story has many chapters.
Prelude and Print
Before print, innovations were already driving down information costs, as the leading historian of early books, Andrew Pettegree, has shown. By the early 15th century, paper (made from clothing rags) began to replace scarcer parchment (made from animal skins). Woodcut prints, succeeding hand-drawn illumination, allowed mass reproduction of illustrations and short texts.
Transportation costs dropped, too, as economic historian Carlo Cipolla demonstrated: The 13th-century opening of the St. Gothard Pass across the Alps cut land transportation costs between northern Italy and Germany, while the cargo-to-crew ratio for ship transportation doubled in the 150 years after 1400. Reduced transportation costs enabled a network of trade fairs where books were prized items. Batteries of copyists provided product: In the mid-15th century, Cosimo de’ Medici contracted with Florentine bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci for 55 scribes, who produced the amazing quantity of 200 illuminated books in two years. The veneration of books went beyond the elite: Two decades before the printing press, Van Eyck’s massive “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” altarpiece (1435) in Ghent’s St. Bavo’s Cathedral depicts at least twelve figures with books.
Printing was a capital-intensive business. Presses, adapted from wine presses, were just the most visible part of its supply chain. Watermills pulped rags for paper, and paper stocks had to be kept in inventory. Consistent, durable type had to be molded and cast; ink had to be viscous enough to be readable, yet fast-drying so as not to soak through to the other side of the paper.
To cover these costs, the product had to sell. Our idea of early print is the Gutenberg Bible (c. 1454), but that was an expensive product with a limited market of scholars and connoisseurs. As with the later personal computer and smartphone, high-tech products become profitable only once the market is broadened and economies of scale attained. Fortunately for the future of print, by the 16th century roughly 30 to 40 percent of males were literate in several major cities, with additional audiences among urban women and in rural areas. Production moved away from luxury scholarly, religious, and scientific books and turned to smaller, more disposable items such as Books of Hours (prayer books), schoolbooks, short broadsheets or pamphlets on current issues, chivalric romances, and even pattern books for the latest fashions. Shorter runs speeded inventory turnover, tying up less capital in unsold books, and allowing publishers to adjust to market demand.
Mass Media, Mass Movements
The new medium still lacked its first superstar author, however. That man was, as Pettegree’s recent book calls him, Brand Luther. Like James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald (America’s first large-circulation penny-press newspaper), and Donald Trump on Twitter in later centuries, Martin Luther created a mass readership that couldn’t look away.
Luther’s German-language Bible famously codified the language’s vernacular, but his greatest contribution to the new medium was as a controversialist. Formerly an unprepossessing monk in the obscure eastern German town of Wittenberg, Luther turned out to have a flair for writing and churned out Flugschriften (8- or 16-page German-language religious essays) in a biting style. By 1530, his writings in German had sold two million copies in over 2,000 editions, and he continued upward from there. Luther’s antagonists, both Catholic and Protestant, responded in kind, leading to a print explosion, with writers often timing their latest releases for the huge Frankfurt Fair.
Luther recognized the importance of graphics, and worked closely with a stable of Wittenberg printers to make the look of his publications attractive and consistent, turning the city into a major print center. His ally in Wittenberg was one of Renaissance Europe’s greatest artists, Lucas Cranach, a major player in the woodcut revolution who recognized that graphics could turn eyeballs in bookstalls into the early modern equivalent of clicks.
Before Cranach, title pages, which served as the covers of these proto-paperbacks, featured the author’s name and perhaps a low-quality woodcut. Cranach developed a cover-page woodcut template that Wittenberg’s printers could slot into their forms. The elaborate woodcuts—of a quality previously reserved for high-end prints—featured a central block into which the author and title could be inserted. They sent books jumping off the shelves. With few intellectual-property protections, Cranach’s designs were lifted by printers in other cities and widely influential. The flavor of 16th-century book production in Nuremberg, a city that Luther called his “eyes and ears,” is currently available in a National Gallery of Art library exhibition.
Luther’s first fame came from his attack on indulgences, which allowed sinners to buy their way out of purgatory. A Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel, anticipated Harvey Weinstein’s penance of cash contributions to opponents of the National Rifle Association. He raised money for the giant St. Peter’s Basilica with the slogan, “When a coin in the cashbox rings, another soul from purgatory springs.”
Luther’s assault on church corruption resonated in early modern Europe, where all kinds of verities were being undermined, even as religion remained at the core of everyday life. The economic pendulum was swinging to Europe’s west. As Eire notes, the new access to Asia and the Americas led to a constant stream of discoveries of new plants, animals, and peoples, devaluing received knowledge from classical authors. All this new knowledge found its way into books.
The political world was also in turmoil as centralized nation-states consolidated; most Italian city-states, for example, effectively lost full independence after the French invasion of 1494 launched a half-century of wars. Ottoman power waxed in the century following the capture of Constantinople in 1453. Renaissance popes, who seemed more interested in self-glorification and expanding their territories than in spiritual guidance, had their temporal ambitions wrecked by the Sack of Rome, carried out by the troops of the eminently Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1527.
These disruptions paved the way for the truly revolutionary aspect of Luther’s theology, which followed from his rejection of indulgences: He argued for the salvation of the inner soul by faith alone, and ultimately for the rejection of the “Antichrist” papacy and its futile rituals involving only the outer, inauthentic self. This radical notion upended the whole church hierarchy, but with implications for the political hierarchy as well. Given the entanglement of church and regional politics, if the Catholic Church was devalued, so was a prince who leveraged its status for worldly purposes.
This created political opportunities in the Holy Roman Empire. In Saxony, where Wittenberg is located, Elector Frederick the Wise had previously taken steps to limit Emperor Charles V’s powers. Frederick sheltered Luther, even after Luther’s excommunication by the Pope. He never explained why, and may have never even met Luther. But despite Frederick’s continued observance of some Catholic rituals and collection of 19,013 relics (which drew in pilgrims seeking indulgences), he knew that Luther’s theology undermined Charles’s absolutist claims to be the Universal Monarch.
Founders of revolutionary ideologies never foresee the implications of their positions. Luther presumed that all who read the Bible would arrive at his interpretation, but this turned out not to be the case. And if faith was enough without intermediaries, those who had discovered God’s truth had little need to respect political hierarchies either, including those of the hundreds of entities that comprised the Holy Roman Empire. One result was the rise of the millenarian Anabaptist cult of John of Leiden, whose proto-totalitarian, libertine theocracy in Münster anticipated elements of Jonestown and the Branch Davidians before being destroyed by combined Catholic and Lutheran armies in 1535.
Of much greater significance was the so-called Peasants’ War of 1524-25, in which disputes over taxes and land morphed into a series of uprisings that sought the end of serfdom and the transformation of society in the name of Christian freedom. Luther, who was blamed for these further challenges to early modern society, ultimately came down on the side of authority.
If the study of the Bible alone was insufficient to prevent theological error, the doctrine of faith alone would need subtle adjustment. Luther would have to guide his flock to the correct interpretation of the faith. He created a catechism, prayer books, and hymns. The former monk and his wife, the former nun Katharina von Bora, modeled the holy German family, in contrast to the Roman Catholic priesthood, where nominal celibacy was often belied by informal families on the side. The resulting hierarchy was flatter than that of Roman Catholicism and, with its use of the vernacular instead of Latin, more accessible to its parishioners; but a hierarchy it nevertheless was.
Luther died in 1546. Despite his opposition to relics, Cranach’s standalone woodcut portraits of Luther had raised him almost to the status of a saint in Lutheranism’s core territories, where a common legend was that portraits of Luther would not burn.
Luther’s passing came just as Charles V neared a seemingly final triumph over the German Protestant states in the Schmalkaldic War of 1546-47. But in the next round of war, the Emperor was vanquished and nearly captured. He soon abdicated and retired to a monastery. Lutheranism survived and became the state church in those jurisdictions whose rulers adopted it, a policy described by the Latin phrase cuius regio, eius religio.
This safeguarded the Lutheran status quo, but the next and more radical phase of the Protestant revolution, which would ultimately spread Protestantism around the world, had already begun. John Calvin, after fleeing the absolutist monarchy of France’s François I for the Swiss city-state of Geneva, created a theocracy that imposed a rigid theological and moral code on his followers. Calvin departed from Luther in believing that faith was insufficient for—or even irrelevant to—salvation. Instead, in an even more radically individualistic doctrine, his theology held that God predestined a small elect for salvation (all others were damned), and that none could affect their eternal destiny by faith or good works—or even predict their fate. Like Luther, Calvin shied away from the implications of his theology, which made moral behavior on earth irrelevant. Instead, believing that every act, no matter how small, reflected God’s will, Calvin guided his flock down the path of righteousness by codifying his faith in the massive Institutes. During the last 15 years of his life, Calvin turned out at least 100,000 original words a year for the press.
Calvin had not wanted to become a theocrat—he preferred a quiet life as a theologian—but he came to regard this as his calling. Nor did he intend to trigger waves of violent revolution, instead demanding that his followers worship openly in Roman Catholic states and gladly bear their martyrdom. (He condemned secret Calvinists as Nicodemites, after Nicodemus, who denied to the ancient Romans that he followed Christ.)
Calvin’s followers took away a different, more militant message, which was particularly attractive in states whose rulers aggressively expanded their absolutist powers, such as France, the Low Countries under Spain’s Philip II, and Stuart England. (While England’s Tudors also had absolutist designs, the so-called via media of the 16th-century English Reformation incorporated enough Calvinist elements to keep the lid on.) Unlike the fragmented Holy Roman Empire, these larger states offered little possibility of exit to a more congenial jurisdiction next door. Calvin’s belief that acting righteously could be a sign of grace became the basis for a proto-Leninist creed under which a small, often secretive elect would fight to establish God’s kingdom on earth and bear persecution by their enemies as God’s will. The wealthy merchants whom Max Weber infused with the Protestant ethic were not necessarily the core Calvinist militants; in the Dutch Republic, the leading merchants tended to oppose hardline Calvinism, and the divisions sometimes led to violence.
The civil wars that followed lasted for decades in France and the Low Countries, while political and religious conflict convulsed England for much of the period from 1630 to 1690. Radicalization was fueled by the new print medium. As Luther had found, once arguments were placed before a mass public, they were open to disputation from all sides, leading to scrums that reached audiences far beyond those of medieval scholastics. When mass media led to mass movements, there was a need to engage the populace beyond theology, leading to a profusion of short broadsides and news releases playing up the home team’s victories, which ultimately gave birth to the modern newspaper. These briefer accounts could be read aloud, so that even illiterate members of the community, or those unable to afford purchases, could keep up. Ballads were a catchy way of memorializing commitment to the cause. One, the Wilhelmus, forms an acrostic in tribute to William of Orange, the first leader of the Dutch Revolt; today it is the Dutch national anthem. Hymns rallied the faithful, particularly in the Lutheran tradition. German presses published two million hymnals in 2,000 editions between 1520 and 1600—and in one Catholic hymnal of the period, a third of the hymns had been adopted from Protestant texts.
Much of this print production survives today, if at all, in only one or two copies. Many of these items became widely known only when the internet provided access to the online catalogues of scattered libraries. The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, one of early modern Europe’s major print centers, offers a cross-section of the media melee during France’s brutal Wars of Religion (1559-98). The eccentric government official Pierre de L’Estoile, spent almost a half-century filling 1,200 scrapbooks with every bit of print he could find, including pamphlets strewn by the Duchess of Montpensier from baskets as she rode through Paris. In 1589, he picked up 300 tracts peddled in the streets: ‘There was no little preacher who couldn’t find a place in his sermon for a list of injuries against the King, no pedant so obscure that he didn’t write a couple of sonnets on the subject, no minor printer who couldn’t find a way to roll some new libelous and defamatory discourse off the press every day.” The polarizing print output helped fuel the slaughter.
The Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation—at one time treated as merely a reaction to the modernizing impulse of the Reformation—was also part of the process. The Pope may have been St. Peter’s apostolic successor, but Catholicism had never been as unitary as claimed. Absolutist states such as France and Spain had considerable power over their national Catholic churches, while local notables controlled many of the ecclesiastical positions elsewhere, from which they derived revenue—often to the resentment of the locals. At first, Catholicism was slow to respond to Luther, but the outpouring of Protestant print created a need for a print response for a mass audience, followed by a catechism, prayer books, and the Index of prohibited books. Protestant evangelism led to counter-evangelism. To win the allegiance of wavering elites in places such as Poland, the Catholic Church resolved to be the leading provider of education.
While the Counter-Reformation was directed from the top down, with clergy taking the lead, in some ways, ironically, it led to further decentralization. In order to accomplish its outreach, the Catholic Church created or re-energized a profusion of competing transnational religious orders for men and women. Catholicism’s signature order, the Society of Jesus, began as the militant arm of the papacy, but its vow of absolute obedience coexisted uneasily with its commitment to the pursuit of learning and reasoned argument. Within decades after its launch in 1540, the Jesuits became a semi-autonomous worldwide movement, evangelizing in the far-flung new Spanish and Portuguese empires in the Americas and Asia, and sometimes challenging established secular powers. Its independence ultimately led to the order’s suppression by the Papacy in the 18th century.
By the late 17th century, following the Thirty Years War in Central Europe and the Nine Years War (which followed Louis XIV’s expulsion of the Huguenots from France and England’s Glorious Revolution), most violent religious impulses were exhausted in Europe. But the quest for secular knowledge and disputation, which had moved in parallel with religious impulses from the beginning of the early modern period, continued. The print revolution and its Reformation progeny had set off a competitive cycle that encouraged more literacy to make more converts by making better arguments. Eltjo Buringh and Jan Luiten Van Zanden of Utrecht University calculate that the production of books exploded from about 12.6 million in the half-century from the start of print (c. 1454 to 1500), up to 200 million for 1601-50, to nearly 650 million for 1751-1800. In contrast, the Ottoman Empire’s first Arabic-language printing press published its first book only in 1728.
Information Revolutions: Causes and Consequences
Like the Reformation, other Western information revolutions across the millennia eventually turned into contests for state control, with varying results.
As Pettegree has observed, in the first centuries of the Common Era, the scroll was displaced by the codex (bound sheets of papyrus and later parchment). Unlike scrolls, this ancestor of the book could more easily be copied, corrected, and repaired. This cheaper form of information, combined with the Roman Empire’s transportation revolution, enabled the wide dissemination of standardized, annotatable texts and the rise of one of the first creedal state religions, Christianity, with its emphasis on the spiritual equality of mankind. The Roman Empire turned Christian, but as with the Reformation, the wide availability of texts led Christianity to fragment into opposing sects (Catholics, Arians, Monophysites) in different polities. It was later challenged by another codex-based creedal religion, Islam, that itself soon fragmented.
More recently, during the “short 20th century” of 1919-89, three big information revolutions buttressed the cohesion of the huge nation-empires, democratic and totalitarian alike. Each country’s movie, radio, and television industries required huge capital investments to create vertically integrated production and distribution—networks. Many entities, such as the BBC, were state-controlled. Even privately owned oligopolies, as in the United States, were subject to tight regulatory or informal oversight. This favored the dissemination of a single, easily digestible, pro-regime message. George Orwell’s 1984 satirized Big Brother’s nonstop broadcasts, but in the real world, even more loosely controlled media, such as the Hollywood studio system operating in cooperation with the Hays Office, put out a consistent message of patriotism and morality in which the good guys and the authorities always won. In totalitarian environments, there was little to stop government from fanning the flames of state radicalism.
As the political, economic, social, religious, and scientific verities of the short 20th century broke down, communications fractured, first through multiple cable channels, then through the internet and social media. As in the Reformation, today’s low-information public (whose functional literacy may be in decline) drinks from the firehose of new information. New media fuels radicalization as purveyors segment their audiences and grab eyeballs through ever more outrageous content. Authoritarian states have already been clamping down, fearing unrest, even as some try to turn the hose on others. In recent months, with the revelations of Russian disinformation campaigns on Facebook, Google, and Twitter, Western democracies have been considering whether to do the same.
Our current information revolution has arrived as faith in liberal democracy and its elites is weakening, just as the Reformation arrived when the medieval verities were breaking down. Neither Luther’s faith alone, nor Calvin’s predestined elect, nor the Counter-Reformation’s absolutist papacy restored the earlier unities. Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message,” but what the message is this time around remains to be seen.